Speculating on the Salvation of Other People

Posted on April 26, 2012


One of my favorite websites is The Science of Sport. It’s a blog run by a couple of sports medicine doctors and while the site 1. talks about cycling and rugby, and 2. the science of the research referenced is sometimes beyond my comprehension, most of the time the conclusions are clearly stated and very interesting. They have some recurring themes, such as drink when you’re thirsty and go slowly into barefoot running.

The most interesting posts are always around the question of “How fast can someone run a marathon?” Or more specifically, “When will someone break 2:00:00 for the marathon?” Usually these posts are inspired by someone, a coach or an athlete or a fan, making a prediction that this barrier is going to fall in the next couple of years. The authors of this website say, “The science simply doesn’t back up these claims.”

The current world record is 2:03:38 by Patrick Makau, a time that seems tantalizing close to breaking the 2-hour mark. At first glance even I ask, “How hard can it be to cut off 3:39 over 26.2 miles?

It turns out to be quite difficult.

To run the world record, Makau had to average 4:43 min/mile for the entire race. This is blazing fast. If he had tried to break 2:00:00 he would have needed to average 4:34 min/mile. That’s 9 seconds per mile faster, which doesn’t seem like a lot, but when you consider that elite runners are the fastest, best trained, most equipped runners; that they are people who do this for their jobs and can still only average a 4:43 when the conditions are absolutely perfect with their bodies, the course, and the weather, then those 9 seconds might as well be 9 minutes!

The point being (and this is backed up by science) the answer to the question, “Can a human run 26.2 miles in under 2:00:00?” is…maybe…but not any time soon.

Now, there have been too many “unbreakable” barriers that have fallen (think of the 4:00 min mile) to state with certainty the limits of human ability. And yet there are some limits. Clearly, no human is going to run a marathon in an hour, that would mean running 2:17/mile for the entire race. But 2-hours doesn’t seem outside the bounds of human evolution.

Which is why people continue to speculate upon the possibility.

What all this speculation has to do with searching after God is that sometimes I think that theology can become like speculating on how fast someone can run a marathon, interesting to a point, but ultimately irrelevant.

As I mentioned in a previous post, I recently listened to Rob Bell‘s Love Wins. In it he raises a lot of points about the expansive and powerful and awesome love of God. In short he says, there is no limit to God’s love. There were reactions to this that said, “No, God’s love is part of God’s justice and some people are going to Hell. Even though God’s love is expansive and deep, there are limits, which are set out in the Bible.”

The problem with either of these positions is that they are akin to speculating on how fast someone might be able to run a marathon; it doesn’t change what we need to do on any given day of the week.

To the recreational runner it is functionally irrelevant how fast some other person might someday run a race. It is also irrelevant to speculate on how fast you might be able to run. The only way you’re going to know how fast you could run is to train as smart as you know how, as hard as you know how, and come race day, do your very best.

In the same way, it is functionally irrelevant for Christians to speculate on who may or may not be saved, good, reprobate, evil, living in sin, or damned to hell. It doesn’t matter and worrying about it actually counter-productive to living a Christ-like life. Instead, what we should be doing is training hard and trying to figure out how we can do our best. Focusing on other people is the kiss of death in competition and it is a kind of idolatry in our lives.

One of my favorite scenes of C.S. Lewis comes from his book The Horse and His Boy. It comes near the end when Aslan is explaining the whys and hows of the story. Aravis wants to know about a servant-girl she has left behind and Aslan explains:

“Child,’ said the Lion, ‘I am telling you your story, not hers. No one is told any story but their own.”

We all have a story. They are not all the same. That we expect them to be, that we expect our experiences of the divine to be formulaic, prescriptive and therefore unsurprising, cheapens ourselves and limits God to such an extent as to be unrecognizable.

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